Thursday, 12 January 2012

A sketch of a theory of responsibility

(Mostly inspired by discussions with Garrath Williams and Matt Matravers.)

1. There is no such thing as responsibility. That is, there is no thing, responsibility, out there in the world for us to discover or describe or respond to. Holding responsible is a thing humans do: an institution or practice. And we can do it in many different ways, or, perhaps, we could choose not to do it at all.

2. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to choose between different practices of holding responsible. Norms for those practices include causality and human flourishing, which set limits on the kinds of practices we ought to adopt, and ground reasons for and against particular practices.

3. Causality, unlike responsibility, is out there in the world. Some things really do cause other things, in the sense that but for the first, the second would not exist or have happened. To hold someone responsible is normally to assert causation, and a demonstration of lack of causation is a good criticism of an attempt to hold responsible. This means, for example, that a good reason against holding a witch responsible for an illness is that the alleged witch did not, in fact, cause the illness.

4. Human flourishing is also out there in the world. I can remain neutral here about what exactly flourishing is, and insist only that – obviously – some people’s lives really go better than others’ do, regardless of what we choose to say or do about it. Flourishing is normative for our practices of holding responsible in the straightforward consequentialist sense that the right practice is the one which best promotes flourishing. This means, for example, that the current punitive practice of the UK and US should be abandoned because of its disastrous results. It’s not that people in prison aren’t really responsible for what they did: there’s no such thing as being really responsible, only a practice of holding responsible. Rather, holding mostly poor, wounded, badly educated people responsible in a way which legitimates locking them up for long periods of time is bad for those people, and not good for the rest of us. So we should stop it.

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